How to Deal with Discouragement

An email critiquing your program or teaching. A parent or group of parents talking about you behind your back. A supervisor criticizing what you do during your review. An event you have prayed over and poured hours into bombs. You get told that due to budget cuts you no longer have a job. You are asked, “when do you think you will grow up and be a real pastor?” A student you love and poured into walks away from their faith.

Discouragement looks different for all of us, but all of us have experienced discouragement. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, discouragement in ministry hurts more than discouragement elsewhere. The reason it hurts more is because it isn’t simply a job; it’s our calling, our passion, a reflection of our faith, and an act of service to our Lord. To experience discouragement in ministry rocks us to our core because ministry is such a part of our identity. In some ways it perhaps could have become an idol in our lives and that crushes us more so (more on that below).

So do we simply acknowledge the discouragement and say to ourselves, “roll with the punches” or “brush it off, and keep pressing on?” I don’t think those mentalities are wrong but they are ultimately not sustainable or helpful because they’re simply dismissive of the root issue or allow for us to attempt to bury our feelings. Instead, we need to proactively respond and think through how we handle our discouragement.

Get a mentor.

You shouldn’t have a mentor just for times you are discouraged or hurt, but having a mentor during those times is essential. A mentor is someone who loves you, knows you, understands your passion and calling, and will also speak truth to you. A good mentor will help you to assess what was said and help you to think about it critically. They can discern if there is truth, help you to grow and be challenged, and also encourage and uplift you during those tough moments. A mentor is someone who is fully for you: they want you to be the best you can be, as God designed you to be. They will give you a place to process, be heard, learn, and grow as they push you to be more like Jesus.

Evaluate what was said.

This can be a tough thing to do because we (like everyone else) come with our own biases. We may think that what we do for our program, students, and leaders is top notch. And it may be, but the idea or critique given to you may also be a valid way to do ministry. As a leader we need to be practicing the arts of discernment and evaluation throughout our lives and ministries. If someone shares something that discourages you or upsets you, lean into it and ask some questions.

  • Why did this upset or discourage me?
  • What did I take offense to?
  • Is there anything helpful I can take from this?
  • What was the intention of what was said or what happened?
  • Do I need to have a follow up conversation?
  • Is there any truth or validity to what was said or what happened?
  • How can I grow through this?
  • What do I need to release to God?

Think about why this discouraged you.

This is similar in some ways to evaluating what was said, but this is more intentionally focused on looking inward at our own hearts. Often we get discouraged because what was said or done hits us in our hearts. This may be because we are so committed to and passionate about our calling, but it can also be because we have held our calling at a higher value than our personal relationship with God. Our calling is not our priority; our priority is our own relationship with God. And our calling is an outworking of our personal relationship with our Savior.

I share both of these reasons because it is important to look at the heart of the matter. If we only assume it is one and not the other, we will not properly assess and discern why we are upset, which then hinders the treatment needed. As you begin to process and think through why you are feeling discouraged, an accurate diagnosis will allow for you to better think through how you respond, move forward, and achieve a healthier understanding and outlook.

Ask yourself what your goal is and who you serve.

This is important for all leaders to do periodically, but especially during moments of discouragement. I know there are times I get discouraged after a negative critique of my preaching or a lesson I spent hours cultivating. And I get discouraged even if the amount of encouragement outweighs the one negative comment. Isn’t funny how that happens to us? But this forces us to consider the bigger question of “why.” Why does that happen? Why can one comment or response throw us into such a period of discouragement, doubt, and self-criticism?

The reason is because we are sinful people who truly value, desire, and covet the love and praise of others. This is a hard to truth to swallow, but take a moment and ask yourself this question: do I feel more affirmed, valued, appreciated, and loved when others complement my message or event, or when I know I preached a sermon that honored God and proclaimed the Gospel? Does that answer change if you just got blasted by someone after preaching that sermon that honored God? What if they question your conclusion and tell you that your sermon actually did more harm than good?

We must remember that our job is never to appease others nor is it about receiving the applause and praise of humankind. Our job is to preach the Gospel. To proclaim that Christ came, Christ died, Christ defeated sin and the grave, Christ glorified, and Christ as our salvation. That is our calling. If you can stand up and do that in your messages and in your leadership, then we should be able to stand strong under any critique knowing we have fulfilled our calling. It doesn’t make the critiques and comments any easier to hear, but it assures us of our value and mission. We know we have served the One who is worthy to be served, and that ultimately God will honor our calling and mission to Him regardless of what anyone else says.

Release and forgive.

Often it is easy to hold onto our feelings and the tension they bring. We can hold thoughts in our minds about what was said and who said them. We can allow for the tension, thoughts, and feelings to actually keep us from engaging fully with those individuals or to have thoughts about them that are not Christ-like. If we allow our hurt to develop into more than hurt in our lives it leads to bitterness, frustration, and anger. And these things will cause further pain and division. Let me encourage you to release the pain and hurt, and forgive those who have hurt you whether it was intentional or not. Allowing yourself the freedom to move through the pain and to forgive will actually bring peace and wholeness back into your life. You are not absolving the person nor are you agreeing with what was said. Instead, you are allowing what happened to not be a wedge in your own life, your relationship with them, or your relationship with God. You are seeking to bring about right standing and to honor God.

Take a break, breathe, and laugh.

Recently I had one of these moments of discouragement. During COVID it seems like more and more tension is rising to the surface in local churches, and because of that it seems to be rare that church leaders can do what their congregation thinks is right. I had heard of some indirect grumblings about how I am leading and it caused such pain and discouragement. I will be honest: it put me into a funk that day. I was already stressed because I was preaching and had a hundred other things going on, and the week before had been filled with some very difficult moments.

I sat down for a meeting with some of our staff team, and by complete happenstance we went down a rabbit trail that ended with all of us laughing until we were crying. It was one of those moments when I looked at the staff I serve with and felt so blessed to call them my family. As we signed off of Zoom, I realized something: I felt better. I had taken my eyes and thoughts off of the tension at hand and simply took a break with friends and laughed. It brought such relief and joy, and I felt the tension evaporate.

As I reflected on the issue that had arisen, I did it with a fresh perspective and a lighter heart. I realized that the issue wasn’t as great as I first gave it the credit for being. I understood who I was and where my identity came from. I paused to actually take it to God. When we allow for the problem or discouragement to not be our focus, we can be aware of how to better approach that issue. Take some time away from what discouraged you. Refocus. Take time to breathe and do something you enjoy. Spend time with those closest to you who can encourage you and make you laugh. Experience joy and encouragement, then after some time of refreshment, think through what happened and come up with a way to move forward.

Leading Students Well in Chaotic Times

This past week we saw something unprecedented in modern times: the US Capital was marched upon and breached. It was a moment that as I watched it unfold brought me back to the moment I saw the Twin Towers struck in New York and then collapse on September 11. The pain, hurt, grief, frustration, and brokenness I felt made my soul weary and longing for the return of our true Savior.

But as I sat and pondered the events of this past week and scrolled through social media, I saw how my students were reacting. Their reactions varied and ranged across the political landscape, but what struck me so deeply was the level of engagement and reaction they displayed. The last year has been nothing short of difficult for our students. They have faced a global pandemic, figured out how to engage with online education, struggled with loss of income, wrestled with racial equality, and still attempted to navigate the normal difficulties of teenage life.

Students are struggling right now, and we as their pastors and leaders must give them the space and place to process, engage, and respond. They are asking deep and meaningful questions, they are searching for answers, they want to understand, and are seeking clarity, wisdom, and knowledge. The reality is we are all processing and hurting, but as leaders we have an obligation to lead out and shepherd our people well. We must be a voice for truth, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a reflection of Jesus to our students. Today, I want to offer some steps you can take to engage well with your students as they are working through the realities and difficulties of our world.

Be approachable.

In order for us to have these conversations, students most know that they can approach us about these issues. Students will wrestle with various topics and issues, but they won’t always be willing to share them with you if they do not think you can be trusted. It’s imperative to be someone who shows they can be trusted and someone who will listen and be available.

Create the space for conversations.

This goes hand-in-hand with being approachable, but it takes it a step further. Be someone who not only allows conversations to happen, but also engages in them. Don’t shy away from talking about heavy, difficult, or deep topics. Embrace the conversation and engage with your students. In doing so, you are creating a place for students to be real and honest about what they are thinking and processing. Students need to understand that you are willing to talk about things and when they bring their thoughts to you, that you are going to listen and walk through it with them.

Listen well.

Speaking of listening, we need to be leaders who listen well. Often as leaders we tend to want to fix problems as they are presented to us. This means that while students are sharing their problems with us, we are not listening to them fully because we are already figuring out how to fix their problem. This type of listening is often called “Passive Listening” and honestly isn’t really listening. It actually devalues the speaker because you aren’t giving them the forum to truly share and be heard. What I would suggest is something called “Attentive Listening” which you can read about further in this book by Charles Allen Kollar. Kollar’s suggestion of “Attentive Listening” means that you are listening in a careful and alert way and bringing in the beneficial aspects of passive and active listening. You speak back words, phrases, or paraphrases to the speaker and you help them think through solutions after they have finished speaking.

Listening well means you don’t just look at the problem and the solution, but you value the person and you show them they have been fully heard. Students want to be listened to and valued, and allowing them to share and be heard will build mutual trust and respect.

Do not be dismissive.

There are times in many of our lives where we may be dismissive of someone and their ideas, beliefs, or ideologies, whether we meant to or not. It could be because we scoff at the idea that is presented. We respond sarcastically. We try to flaunt our own knowledge. We could say it is a non-issue. We tell people that this is just how it is. When we do this to anyone or when it is done to us, we feel dismissed and diminished. We feel dumb, ignored, and cast to the side.

Students are so aware of when this happens, and when it does they shut down, refuse to engage, and frankly they stop trusting you as a safe person. I am not saying that we need to have an open theology or hedge on our doctrinal convictions. But I do believe we need to allow students to present what they are thinking and why, and then walk through a thoughtful and biblical response with them. Bring them into the process, value their time, hear their heart and thoughts, and challenge them to grow.

I would also encourage you to not allow for lack of time to keep you from engaging with students. Sometimes we can be dismissive because when students ask a question or challenge what is being said, it isn’t an opportune time to respond (i.e. while you are teaching). So instead of just telling them to be quiet, ask them if you could take them out for coffee later and discuss further. And then make sure you follow through.

Be willing to hear both sides.

Throughout 2020, politics and the surrounding topics littered our conversations, and an observation I saw was how divided the lines were. It wasn’t just generational either, although that was a big piece, it was more partisan in its divide. And people on either side were unwilling to hear the other side or even consider what they were saying.

Often this happens within ministries as well. We simply stick to our views and theologies rather than give other views a honest consideration. Let me explain it this way: you may hold to a literal seven day view of creation, but a student holds to an old earth view that includes a non-literal view of the creation account. How do you respond? Do you make a firm stance on your theological hill? Do you tell the student they are wrong? Do you allow them to share their thoughts and ask to grab coffee and study the topic together?

We can tend to hold onto our theologies, dogmas, and personal beliefs so closely that we close off any other views or insight. It is so important to not live in a one-sided bubble but to be listening to other thoughts and viewpoints even if we don’t believe or agree with them. Doing so will not only allow us to grow and have a deeper foundation of our own beliefs, but value students and their insights as well. It will also open doors to build bridges between differing view points or “sides.”

Admit when you are wrong, don’t know, or need to search for info.

I am not the brightest bulb in the socket and I know it. In fact, at our church there are many staff members who are much smarter than I am. And working in student ministry has shown me how important it is to have a grasp on wide variety of topics and what the Bible says about them. But there are a great many topics I don’t know about and questions I don’t have an answer for.

In light of that, it is so important to admit when you don’t know and let students know that. But don’t simply say you don’t know, let them know you will look for answers and get back to them. My line has always been, “I don’t know, but I am going to ask George” (our senior pastor). And I do, and will typically get 3-5 books to read through. But then I bring the student into the study and we look at it together. I also would encourage you that if you are wrong in something you said, admit it. It is incredibly humbling, but man is it a great way to lead from a place of humble servant leadership. Students will see that you aren’t perfect, but in seeing that they will respect you all the more for leading outward and upward.

Seek understanding and clarity for where others are coming from.

Sometimes students just like to be contrarian and other times they are asking questions or disagreeing because of something that happened in their lives or because of what they have been told. Don’t assume you know why a student disagrees or that you know why they are challenging you. Be willing to dig deeper and find out why a student believes what they do. I asked a student one time why they didn’t believe in hell thinking it was because they thought since God was love everyone would go to heaven. But I found out it was because a grandparent had passed away who wasn’t a believer and they didn’t want to think they would lose them forever.

That understanding changed my whole approach to how I engaged with them and my responses to their questions and thoughts. When we pause and truly listen, when we ask questions, and when we dig deeper, it will allow us to better understand our students and better serve them.

Be willing to change your views.

This is a tough one, and to be honest, I hesitated even putting this in because I know it will ruffle feathers. We tend to have our views and theologies and we hold to them firmly. But if I can take a moment and ask a question: what if our theologies were perhaps incorrect or not fully informed? Should we not think about a new approach? And even if they are correct, shouldn’t we be willing to hear arguments against them and think critically about what we believe and why we believe it?

I share this because I often see students having differing views than their leaders, parents, and older generations and that is a good thing! They should be exploring and asking questions. They should be pushing on the status quo. And they should be asking “why” questions. This allows them to think critically and formulate a deeply personal relationship with Jesus. But if we only respond out of fear or frustration or from a viewpoint of “this is how it always has been,” students will stop engaging with us because they do not see you as a safe person and thereby will not trust you.

So should you hear a viewpoint different from yours, be willing to hear what is said and truly consider it. Be willing to consider you may not have it all figured out and that perhaps. just perhaps, the idea a student shares is accurate and correct. I am not saying capitulate on doctrine, but be willing to think critically about personal convictions, political beliefs, and denominational viewpoints.